There’s something other-worldly about trains. Humanity has had a love affair with them as a character in stories probably since Stephenson’s Rocket. In my mind, they’re something akin to Charon, the boat man who said nothing, but ferried fee paying shades across the Styx. Trains – not those nasty commuters – are about little deaths, grieving, farewells, lost loves, running down the platform, rain, fear, and fogged up glass. The beautiful cinematography in Zhou Yu’s Train manages to capture much of the romance of train travel – trains are threaded through the story as the heroine, Zhou Yu searches for perfect love. It’s only when Zhou Yu switches from trains to other forms of transport that things change. She has a lover in a distant town – a poet – and the film makes full use of poetic scenes, music and script to continually reinforce this theme. And we get to see snippets of post-Deng China – becoming ever more prosperous, travel is suddenly an option, and the girls who paint vases have enough money, and enough time, to make use of trains to frequently visit distant lovers. And the back streets of Zhongyang? Surprisingly clean – almost the Switzerland of Asia. Not the China I remember, but I liked it anyway.
This is not the easiest film to follow – the Mandarin dialogue at times was difficult so the subtitles were an unfortunate essentential – but it’s worth the effort. You do have to pay attention – not only do the subtitles flit past, but the story flashes scenes past – not unlike the view from an express window – you capture the big picture, the detail is torn away from you, little better than a glance. The storyline is put together rather like the broad stokes of the more rustic styled silk embroidery – sweeping, back and forth – difficult to follow, but eventually it comes together and you realise everything in the big picture is connected – right place, right time – not unlike the trains themselves. Sit back, let the ride take you.